BORN TO BE A CHEF - Raised in a restaurant and now tantalizing taste buds as a career, this Airman knows his way around a hazardous area ... the kitchen

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
Before Tech. Sgt. Rhodello Nuval reached 10 years old, he already had an idea he'd be a chef.

"Other kids would be out riding their bikes, and sometimes I'd go with them; but most of the time, I'd choose to stay in the kitchen and help my mom and grandmother cook. I just love to cook," said Nuval, whose culinary team won a prestigious award Sept. 25 during the 2009 Military Culinary Competition in Washington D.C. with Walter Schieb (noted White House chef for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) in attendance.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Nuval's family owned a restaurant where he got his first taste of being a chef.

While other kids were out getting skinned knees and scraped elbows, at any given time he sported small hot grease burns or sliced fingers. So at a young age he learned that the kitchen could be both heaven and hell.

"I started out just taste-testing food," Nuval said. "I'd steal the sugar flowers off the wedding cakes my mom made. She'd get mad at me because I could eat them faster than she could make them."

But when he was about 7, he evolved to more than just a kid licking chocolate cake batter off of a mixing spoon. He learned to cook his first meal. With that came working with fire-hot burners, sharp knives and scalding water.

"My mom taught me how to make fried rice and pancit (rice noodles with carrots, celery, soy sauce and chicken)," he said. "From there I went on to learn all kinds of Filipino delights. Along the way, she taught me to safely navigate through a busy kitchen."

At age 15, Nuval and his family immigrated to the United States. He went to High School in Las Vegas, and says the transition wasn't too tough because he had already learned to speak English in his Filipino school.

He then entered the Air Force in 1992, and got his start in military food services in Air Education and Training Command at Luke AFB, Ariz. Today, he serves as the newest chef for Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Owen, the commander of the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

While going from student to fulltime food services specialist, the transition wasn't as daunting to Nuval as it was to others.

"By that time I'd been working in a kitchen most of my life," he said matter-of-factly.

But even the most experienced kitchen dwellers aren't immune from letting their guard down.

"As a young Airman, I was cleaning fryers," he said. "I got distracted as I was cleaning off the gunk and my arm touched the hot fryer coil. I got a nasty burn that left a permanent scar."

Nuval said a fast-paced, busy kitchen can become a house of horrors if people get complacent and don't stay focused. He's seen co-workers slice their fingers with knives, get burned by hot grease splashing on them from the fryer, break a bone by falling on a slippery floor or even get scalded because they wore a wet oven mitt when grabbing a hot pan (water is a great conductor of heat).

In nearly every case, the kitchen calamities could have been avoided if the victims or those around them hadn't gotten distracted and been better prepared, he said.

"If you want to avoid an accident, always prepare your equipment, food items and ingredients ahead of time," Nuval said. "This makes it so you don't have to leave your work station so much. Leaving your station can lead to more fires, slips and falls, and other incidents. Once you have everything you need within an arm's reach, then you need to avoid distractions, which can lead to burns and cuts."

While Nuval is accutely aware of the hazards a kitchen can present, these dangers do nothing to sway his passion for cooking.

"To me cooking is an art ... an expression of flavors, of life," he said. "I love to watch the smile on people's faces when they see the food and watch those smiles get even bigger when they taste it."

And, as a military member, he has another motivation driving him as well.

"If troops don't have a good meal in their bellies, I believe they can't focus as well on the mission," Nuval said. "I want to ensure they get a good, nutritious meal so they can concentrate and put their bombs on target or whatever else they do. That's a big deal to me."

That's why he has deployed six times -- as a volunteer. He's always among the first to raise his hand for a deployment because he wants to help the warfighter.

If anyone questioned his passion, those doubts were erased during a surprising spring blizzard at Ellsworth AFB, S.D., May 4, 2008.

"A blizzard hit the base in the middle of the night and dropped three feet of snow that came with 40 mph winds and temperatures 30 below zero," he said. "Roads were closed. Non-essential military personnel (like me) were told to stay home. But all I could think about were the Airmen in the dorms and the mission-essential personnel needing food."

So Nuval bundled up in arctic gear and, with his wife protesting, started the dangerous two-mile trek to the dining hall.

"I couldn't see 10 feet in front of me," he said.

Wading through waist-deep snow and resting between dim light poles that gave him his only sense of direction, Nuval trudged on slowly.

"It was exhausting, and I thought about turning back," he said. "But I used a fence to pull myself along; though in some areas the snow was so deep I just had to crawl through it or roll over it. It took me a little over an hour to reach the dining hall. I was spent, but I made it."

And the Airmen got fed.

While Nuval doesn't recommend trying to battle Mother Nature and potentially risking your life like he did, he does try to instill passion in the Airmen he trains.

"I always encourage them to push the envelope ... to give the customer a better, tastier, more colorful product," he said.

He credits Tech. Sgt. Wesley Williams, a former Pentagon chef and Air Force enlisted aid who is now stationed at MacDill AFB, Fla., for helping him to become a food artist and culinary creator who pushes the limits of fine quisine.

"He opened the possibilities of fine dining to me," said Nuval, who was stationed with Williams at Ellsworth AFB at the time. "Chef Williams is the reason I wanted to become a culinary chef. I just took hold of his shirttails and followed him. He made cooking fun."

Together, they worked on a dish that beat out all other military chefs and earned Williams a spot on the "Emeril Live" show with world-famous chef Emeril Lagassi. The show's producers flew Williams to their studio in New York City, and the episode aired on the Food Network in late June 2007.

"I was Sergeant Williams' sous-chef so he was the one to go on the show," Nuval said. "But I didn't care. I felt so privileged that Chef Williams picked me to help and that the meal we prepared won. I think he picked me because I have a similar passion to his. It was like we were able to read each other's culinary mind on how we wanted certain things to end up."

They prepared a specialty of Williams' -- rainbow fruit stuffed pork tenderloin and cheddar fried grits, with blueberry coulees.

"The stuffed pork is unique -- you won't find this recipe anywhere else," Nuval said.

Nuval is unique as well. After growing up in his family's restaurant and spending the last 17 years cooking for the Air Force, he definitely knows his way around the kitchen and never tires of his chosen profession.

As he taste-tested another mouth-watering creation, he said, "I was born to be a chef."